Against the Protestant Gnostics
On March 9, 2010 At 6:38 am
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In this penetrating and provocative assessment of the current state of religion and its effects on society at large, Philip J. Lee criticizes conservatives and liberals alike as he traces gnostic motifs to the very roots of American Protestantism. With references to an extraordinary spectrum of writings from sources as diverse as John Calvin, Martin Buber, Tom Wolfe, Margaret Atwood, and Emily Dickinson, he probes the effects of gnostic thinking on a wide range of issues. Calling for the restoration of a dialectical faith and practice, the book points to positive ways of restoring health to endangered Protestant churches.
User Ratings and Reviews
2 Stars Polemical, Protestant ecclesiology at its finest
This book is certainly a very traditional and classical coverage of Protestant ecclesiology. It encourages the community-aspect of Protestant Christianity over the tendency towards modern individualism, which sometimes leads to the question of why Church is even necessary, etc. Major reference that most everyone will recognize is German theologian Karl Barth.
This is indeed a call back to the more traditional form of communistic Protestantism, and for this it ought to be applauded. Nevertheless, even this book is far off from original Christianity in all of its glory. Whereas Protestantism was a movement towards more spirituality and less bureaucracy (thus misbalancing Christianity slightly, though Catholicism can be blamed for the exact same thing), this is just seemingly a call towards more bureaucracy and less spirituality. However, it does cover its topic well, and the spirituality aspect of things is not even claimed to be covered, so the author is without fault. Just keep in mind that original apostolic Christianity was the perfect balance of government and spirituality, so as to move towards the salvation of souls; this book does not offer the answer to moving closer to that original Christianity.
And in regards to why I gave this book only two stars: In the spirit of its locally communistic message, it kind of staged an attack on America. Not in the tradition of radical Islamists, mind you, but more in the manner of a dry shrug and indifference towards American sovereignty, and the very concept of financial liberty, etc. One main example I give for this: This book criticizes Ronald Reagan for criticizing certain Churches that had policies or at least preached against nuclear defense, in favor of nuclear disarmament. In doing so, the author indifferently throws out one of the most phenomenal Christian Americans (and a Protestant at that) ever. To focus on such a small detail that may or may not have been negative in Reagan's campaign, while ignoring all of the phenomenally charitable things he did for us all, is selfish and ridiculous.
Moreover, as I have said, this book is indeed polemical, and in a kind of viciously biased way. You will not find both sides in this book expressed very well. What you will find is a simplistic explanation of Gnostic belief, what you will not find is a very decent representation of Reagan's Christianity (which is actually not very traditional in the ecclesiological aspect), or even of the most traditional forms of Christianity (Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism), from which even Philip Lee's form of Protestantism is still a great deviation.
4 Stars Pure polemic
Canadian Presbyterian pastor Phillip. J. Lee uses the ancient heresy of Gnosticism as an archetype by which to gage contemporary strands of Protestantism in North America. Contrasts are drawn between "Gnostic" and "Orthodox" trends in contemporary Christianity with the Orthodox end of the spectrum made to look considerably more true and desirable than the Gnostic. Gnosticism relies on salvation through the attainment of secret "knowledge" that can only be accomplished by a spiritually developed elite. The primary problematic characteristics of Gnosticism, according to Lee, are that it is elitist and that it is dualistic; in other words, it views the created world as inherently evil and the gifts of creation as objects to be avoided. Earthly life, then, is not to be lived, but to be escaped. This results in spiritual-elitism, separation of the holy from the "impure" and an obsessive focus on individual salvation among Conservative-evangelical groups. On the left, Gnostic tendencies lead to individualistic religion, personalized and subjective "spirituality" and the happiness of the individual as life's ultimate goal.
Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, is more concerned with the salvation of the Church as an organic body, rather than with particular individuals, and preaches a Christ who cannot be known through private spirituality, but only by participation in the life of the Church. Orthodoxy teaches readily accessible revealed truth, rather than mysterious and esoteric "knowledge". Who are the contemporary Gnostics? Any group that does not fit into the author's understanding of orthodoxy. It is a strategy that is highly effective, even though disingenuous.
Lee is extremely though provoking and he is equally critical of both liberal and conservative trends in American Protestantism. There is plenty of material to make everybody from Southern Baptists and Unitarians take offense. Regarding its readability, this book might be intimidating to readers not familiar with theology, but in general is very well written.
However, Lee's rhetoric comes with some glaring problems in logic. The first problem is that he never answers the question: "Who's Orthodoxy". Lee sees himself as preaching the message of early Calvinism and assigns the status of orthodoxy accordingly. But he never wrestles with the fact that his orthodoxy is heresy by Roman or Eastern-Orthodox standards. He regards Rome and the East as "sister churches" but never acknowledges that the feeling is less than mutual. He scoffs at the notion of religious "choice" but fails to acknowledge that religious freedom is a reality, whether for better or for worse. Decisions as to who is Gnostic are highly subjective. Lee admits that ancient Gnosticism has influenced even orthodox Christianity; Gnostic trends are to be found in the gospel of John, for example. Calvin himself, according to the author, comes "dangerously close" to Gnosticism at times.
But the biggest problem is that Lee shows no inclination to grapple with the checkered history of Christianity. He readily points out the bizarre practice of castration by the Bogomil-heretical sect, but doesn't mention the merciless slaughter of the Bogomil in the name of "orthodoxy". Criticism of Calvin and Calvinism are facilely dismissed as "simplistic". The sad reality is that this is a thinker with the intellect, the insight and the eloquence to write a balanced critique of the whole of the Christian tradition — one that highlights the truths of orthodoxy without sweeping inconvenient historical facts under the rug. Instead he writes a one-sided polemic that tears down the faith of many in the one Western first-world nation that still attends Church, but provides no arguments for an alternative that will convince those who are not already convinced.
Despite is shortcomings, "Against the Protestant Gnostics" is thoughtful, challenging, and at times witty, and I truly feel that all theologically-inclined Christians could benefit by reading this book if they do so in a spirit of humility and self-criticism.
4 Stars Points the Way to Rome
Despite the author's loyalty to orthodox Protestantism, and his attempts to adumbrate it via his extensive analysis and criticisms of gnosticism, its inheritors and their influence on present-day American Protestantism, there seems to me to be an inevitability about his arguments, even if unacknowledged. Namely that, in the end, not in our lifetimes, certainly, but in the end, all roads lead to Rome.
I compliment him for his honesty and thoroughness in this regard.
A sobering note: Come to find out Rev. Lee's church, St. John and St. Stephen, New Brunswick, CA, no longer exists. Its congregation has been merged with Grace Presbyterian, and now operates under the rubric of Grace Presbyterian, albeit at St. John and Stephen's prior address. Is Rev. Lee still with us?
4 Stars A point through the polemic
Lee's book is, indeed, a detailed look at the ancient gnostic movement and its conflict with early Christianity. Yes, Lee has a few axes to grind and a few biases which are not especially well hidden. However, if you read past (or through) those, he still has some valid points for Christianity today.
For one, his socialist politics is all too evident. His points over gnosticism's "evil matter" are accurate enough, but his application to today's attitude towards people and the enviornment are very poorly done. Secondly is his bias in favor of the strongly liturgical church as an institution. Comng from his presbyterian background, this is not all that unusual. What exposes his point of view, is his quick dismissal of "born again" Christians as loosly gnostic because the -don't- value the structure and liturgy and central authority the same way he does.
Once you forgive Lee his political end ecclesiastical biases, he does still have some valid points to make. The modern gnostic is more typified by the "ME" generation's thinking. The truth is to be found "within" and as the product of a purely self-journey to "enlightenment." There is nothing particularly Christian in this approach at all, but it is often dressed up in christianesque clothes.
The self-centered "ME" spiritualist is, Lee observes, much more inclined to disregard Biblical teachings if they conflict with the ME agenda or experience. The ME spiritualist is much more inclined to eschew being part of a body of believers (such as Lee's too particular lament that membership in classic liturgical churches). "Home Baptist" or "Lone Methodist" are labels offered by such solo-believers as a mask for their go-it-alone gnostic presuppositions.
The modern gnostic might not buy into the ancient cosmology of aeons and evil angels creating the world, but they do buy into the predominant notion that the "secrets" of the universe/happiness are to be found by a self's journey inside. The answers, such as they are, are equally gnostic in being of value only to the self.
Lee's book is a valuable read, provided you don't let his politics and ecclesiology get in your way.
5 Stars Protestant Gnostics
Probing the past for perspectives on the present, a Presbyterian pastor in Saint John, New Brunswick, Philip J. Lee, brings to trial North American Evangelicals in Against the Protestant Gnostics (NY: Oxford University Press, 1987). As one might guess from the title, Lee takes for his mentor St. Irenaeus of Lyons, whose second century treatise, Against Heresies, sought to defend the orthodox faith from various gnostic perversions. "For the gnostic Christian, ancient or modern," Lee says, "simple faith (pistis) is not sufficient. Instead, there must be knowledge (gnosis)" (p.3).
Almost always, Gnostics have these characteristics: 1) a deep sense of metaphysical alienation; 2) a proposed scheme of knowledge to overcome alienation; 3) a world-denying, escapist stance which often disdains material things; 4) an exclusivist, aristocratic elitism, promising real salvation to the enlightened few; 5) a syncretistic compulsion to compound diverse strands of theories and perspectives. Given these identifying marks, much of what follows entails Lee's analysis of how Gnostic notions have flourished, been condemned, or slipped silently into the darker niches of Christendom. As Lee shows, the main tenets of Gnosticism have almost routinely, across the centuries, been condemned by the Church, though nothing seems to prevent its weed-like re-surfacings.
Rooted in the biblical teaching that creation is good, Christians have never rightly tolerated those who would disparage it. Given the inevitable Docetism of most Gnostics, Christians have insisted on the down-to-earth materiality of the Incarnate Christ. Salvation is revealed to Christians primarily through God's historic dealings with His people and thus to the highly visible (if not always highly edifying) believing community. Salvation comes not, as Gnostics assert, through elusive inward workings which bring enlightenment and deliverance for individuals. The typical Gnostic strategies for "self-realization" and personal well being (staples of TV prosperity gospel preaching) has routinely been labeled "sin" by the Church.
Another important distinction involves the sacraments. Whereas Gnostics tend to downgrade, if not dismiss them, the orthodox from the early centuries through the classic Reformers have tenaciously clung to the worth, indeed the soteriological centrality, of at least Baptism and Eucharist. In North America, however, and especially from beachheads within those Puritan communities which focused unduly "on self" and tended to view "humanity from an elitist perspective" (74), Gnosticism wormed its way into the nation's religious life. Those sectarian movements (cultivating what Ernst Troeltsch called an "individualistic Protestantism of active-holiness") which permanently dyed the religious life of America's faithful seemed especially vulnerable to Gnostic notions.
Consequently, Lee titles the second part of his study "Gnosticism in Ascendance in North America." The ancient Gnostic traits typify many churches, especially those rooted in the Calvinist tradition. Unwilling to celebrate the full range of biblical revelation, North American Protestants, Evangelicals included, have embraced Marcion's notion that the only religious truth worth proclaiming is that of the Redeemer-God, who in Christ saves us. Alienated from creation, lacking roots in the historic faith-community, there's little to celebrate but a here-and-now of forgiveness with the added expectation of by-and-by personal bliss.
Too often, North American Protestants have replaced remembrance of the "holy events" celebrated in Scripture with "private illumination," what Jonathan Edwards described as "a Divine and Supernatural Light, immediately imparted to the soul by the spirit of God" (103). This nicely suited the emergent Enlightenment ethos of the 18th century and led, Lee thinks, to an "inversion of Calvinism" (p.104). Thus, in our time, as Charles Glock and Robert Bellah observe: "Immediate experience rather than doctrinal belief continues to be central along all the religious movements, including the Jesus movements, and in the human-potential movement as well. Knowledge in the sense of direct first-hand encounter has so much higher standing than abstract argument based on logic that one could almost speak of anti-intellectualism in many groups" (p.113).
Evangelicals emphasizing the need to be "born again," Lee argues, frequently fall into various forms of escapism, yet another Gnostic trait. We would like to reach a spiritual peak which frees us from nature–from the body and its sexuality, from time, history and politics. Seeking such still obsesses many evangelicals, Lee thinks. "The history of American revivalism has often featured vigorous attacks against the flesh, flesh interpreted as body. Dancing, theater, the plastic arts were all forbidden or discouraged because they were correctly perceived as making a connection between the human spirit and the human body" (p.132). In a chapter entitled "Narcissism: From the Sacred Community to the Inner Self," Lee links the ancient Gnostic fixation on self-realization with modern religious self-help movements. Such a tendency surfaced in the First Great Awakening, when a follower of Jonathan Edwards, Ebenezer Frothingham, could say: "If we rightly consider the Nature of Practice in Religion, or Obedience to God, we shall see an absolute Necessity for every Person to act singly, as in the sight of God only; . . . to bring the Saints all to worship God sociably, and yet have no dependence upon another" (p.145).
Two centuries later, this narcissistic individualism would hallmark the self-adoration disguised with slogans such as "self-expression" and "self-fulfillment." Such are now elevated to unquestioned "rights" by millions of Americans, and churchly concerns–the ancient Christian notion that one is saved within the Church, Calvin's teaching that apart from the Church there is no truth–virtually disappeared. Especially within American Methodism, H. Richard Niebuhr insisted, there appeared "that great revolutionary movement of the eighteenth century that placed the individual at the center of things and so profoundly modified all existing institutions" (p.156). (Here let me argue a bit with Niebuhr and Lee: both illustrate a condescending distaste for America's typically democratic, people-shaped denominations. Historians rooted in European churches, and Easterners displeased with the populism of America's frontier, often treat Methodists et al. unfairly!)
Back to Lee! The fourth Gnostic trait, he lists, elitism, also characterizes some modern North American Protestants. New England Puritans self-consciously cultivated an elite corps of truly righteous believers. In Jonathan Edwards one finds a pastor who allowed only visible saints membership in visible congregations. Revivalists and revivalistic churches have often sought to clearly paint black and white differences between the "saved" and the "lost."
The fifth and final Gnostic trait Lee discerns in American religion is syncretism. Especially in the mainline, liberal churches, there has developed a genial, tolerant, eclectic spirit which often refuses to even restrict itself to clearly Christian sources and doctrines. Almost anything goes under the rubric of "faith" so long as it is sufficiently nebulous. By definition, syncretism has "an aversion to the particular. Within American Protestantism that aversion has been felt especially toward the particularity of Church and sacraments" (p.182). Consequently, the noted Church historian Winthrop S. Hudson, summing up his study of American Protestantism, found little but "the form of surviving memories and a lingering identification with the resources of historic Christianity" (p.185).
On the basis of his analysis, Lee concludes that much of American Protestantism has become gnosticized. Wallowing in anarchic individualism, anti-institutionalism and anti-sacramentalism, waffling with a spineless doctrinal pliability, it desperately needs to recover authentic Christian roots and routines. What he proposes is a "renewal of hope" through "the degnosticizing of Protestantism."
Unfortunately, whereas Lee's critical analyses frequently hit the mark, his proposals for reform, while suggestive, prove less satisfactory. Among other things, he calls for: 1) more liturgical worship services (returning the sacraments to their rightful centrality); 2) less concern for quick-fix pragmatic success criteria (certain that slow growth may be more enduring than over-night sprouts); 3) stronger discipline within the Church; 4) better biblical preaching (written in the pastor's study rather than the so-called "office"); and, 5) the displacement of the self as the center of God's saving work through the proper understanding of the Church, not the individual, as the Body of Christ.
Against the Protestant Gnostics prods one to think! It may not always accurately assess the situation. Those of us in the revivalistic wing of Evangelicalism may rightly deflect some of Lee's barbs, which at times are off the mark, Certainly he seems to propose less than satisfactory solutions to the problems he raises. But the book focuses on an important theme. And it shows, I think conclusively, why today's American churches seem so unlike the Ante-Nicene Church or that espoused by classical Protestant reformers such as Calvin.
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